Historical overview

I bet the first question you have is - when did angling in Britain first begin? Well, a lot of people would like to know that, ourselves included, and it seems highly unlikely that anyone will ever be able to put anything approaching a date on it, because such evidence as we have points to it having been a very long time ago. Angling was certainly widespread by the early Middle Ages, because anglers appear in murals on Church walls, although the majority of fish were netted in those days, simply because it was more efficient.

There are scattered references to fishing in Britain going back even further than that, but the first really concrete evidence we have is in an illumination attributed to the Canterbury school, which came down to us on a pair of leaves which are all that survive of part of a much larger religious manuscript. The surviving fragments are now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and one of the scenes shows an angler playing a fish in the bottom frame - the illumination has been dated to 1000 AD, an incredible five centuries before the first book about fishing was printed in the English language. This image was 'discovered' by Fred Buller and you can read more about it in his book about fish and fishermen in Medieval church wall paintings. Our thanks to Fred and the J.P. Getty Museum for allowing us to reproduce the image shown below.

JP Getty Museum earliest English angler

The first book on fishing printed in the English language was the Treatyse on Fishing with an Angle, which is all the more exciting for the legend which has that it was written by a nun, called Dame Juliana Berners. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly untrue, there being no proof for it whatsover, but if Dame Juliana did exist, she would be the patron saint of British anglers.

Treatyse frontisThe amazing thing about the Treatyse, apart from the extraordinary level of detail in the frontis illustration of a float fisherman, is that it gives an incredibly accurate description of the tackle in use in 1496, the year of its publication; showing that among other things that all the main methods of coarse fishing were already understood five hundred years ago. This detail is often overlooked, because the fame of the Treatyse (apart from Juliana) is largely down to the fact that it includes a list of twelve flies, which are among the earliest trout patterns listed anywhere in the world literature.

But fly fishing was not invented in England, as was once believed - it was known to the Romans and was first mentioned 2000 years ago. The Treatyse also includes the earliest woodcut of angling known to have been printed in England, which is shown here. If you want to read more about the Treatyse and early English angling in general, Medlar have published a transcript and a commentary by Andrew Herd, which is available here.

Float and bait fishing are almost certainly older than fly fishing, but just how far they date back is impossible to say. Apart from the odd church mural, the Treatyse and a book called The Arte of Angling, which was published in 1577, the reference material is decidedly thin prior to the seventeenth century. To make matters worse, very little by way of angling materials has survived before the 18th century, so just about the only way we have of working out how people fished and what methods they used is to read the few books and manuscripts published before the 1750s. There isn't a great deal to go on, but there is just about enough to draw a picture of what it was like to fish in these early times and if you read the pages in the General Features section of this site, up there on the top menu, that should be enough to get you started.